Two-thousand-seven-hundred-and-eleven pages ago, Carey Balaban and his son-in-law Shmuel Isenberg committed to a seven-and-a-half-year project. It was 2012 and the two Squirrel Hill residents were returning from East Rutherford, New Jersey. As they followed the weaving path of Pennsylvania’s Turnpike toward Pittsburgh, the travelers reflected on their trip to the 12th Siyum HaShas — a global celebration of daily Talmud study — where they, along with nearly 90,000 other Jews at MetLife Stadium heard a resounding call to increase Torah study.
“Today we must leave here with a plan. If you have never learned the daf yomi (daily page of Talmud), then tomorrow is the day to start,” announced Rabbi Yissocher Frand, a senior lecturer at Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, Maryland, to the assembled masses. “If this is your second or third time finishing shas (the six orders of the Mishnah and Talmud) then you must ask yourself, ‘How am I going to do better next time around?’”
For years, Balaban and Isenberg had studied Jewish texts. Through classes at synagogues and other institutions dedicated to Jewish learning, or on their own, the two regularly toiled with the corpus of Jewish literature, but neither had successfully completed what so many others at MetLife Stadium had come to celebrate.
“When Rabbi Frand was talking about daf yomi,” and the commitment to studying one page of Talmud each day, a spark was lit, explained Balaban: “It made you feel why not, you had to do it.”
“I was inspired and I said, ‘Why not try it? Worst case scenario I fall short but at least I tried,’” said Isenberg.
Last week, after working through thousands of pages of the Babylonian Talmud, additional material from the Jerusalem Talmud, and dedicating nearly seven and a half years to the process, Balaban and Isenberg completed the cycle for the first time.
“I feel quite accomplished,” said Isenberg.
There’s something transformative about committing to regularly studying rabbinic teachings, explained Alex Sax, of Squirrel Hill, who also participates in the project. “It helps us discover the reasons why we do the mitzvahs (commandments) expected of us as hinted in the Torah,” he said.
Daily study also speaks to the heart of the Jewish enterprise, added Jerry Parness, of Squirrel Hill, another daf yomi scholar: “This is our answer to anti-Semitism.”
The Babylonian Talmud was compiled around the beginning of the sixth century. Encompassing both the Mishnah (a written collection of Jewish laws and traditions) and the Gemara (Diasporic rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah), the Babylonian Talmud represents an encyclopedic collection of ideas, practices and histories regarding rabbinic Judaism.
Before the internet, phone conferencing and a surplus of printed materials facilitated the accessibility of Talmud study, the rigorous analysis of material dating to the time of late antiquity was limited and largely relegated to select houses of study. But about 100 years ago, an expansive push was made. During the First World Congress of Agudath Israel, Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland announced a unifying project to thousands gathered in Vienna.
If Jews worldwide followed an established schedule of daily Talmud study, Shapiro said, global Jewry could literally be on the same page.
The plan was accepted and on Rosh Hashanah morning, Sept. 11, 1923, the daf yomi cycle began. Nearly seven and a half years later, on Feb. 2, 1931, the first Siyum HaShas was marked by celebrations in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Jerusalem and throughout Europe.
Last week’s gathering of nearly 90,000 Jews at MetLife Stadium — plus thousands who watched via live feed or held similar meetups, including 20,000 Jews who attended a spillover ceremony at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and scores who congregated at a special Saturday evening event at Shaare Torah Congregation — represented the 13th Siyum HaShas.
“This was the third time I went,” said Rabbi Shimon Silver, of Young Israel of Pittsburgh. “The first time was in 1982.”
That first time, which marked the eighth Siyum HaShas, was held at the Felt Forum in New York City and welcomed approximately 5,000 people. Silver attended as a student.
Nearly 40 years have passed, and in the interim Silver has continuously studied the Talmud. In 1999, he began teaching daf yomi regularly. These days, he offers a class at Young Israel each night of the workweek, excluding Fridays — an extra Sunday session enables participants to catch up on Friday’s missed material.
Depending on the page, topics referenced and the number of commentaries cited, a typical class lasts about 40 minutes, he said.
For those unable to attend Young Israel’s weekday evening sessions, both Shaare Torah Congregation and the Kollel Jewish Learning Center offer morning options.
Sax, who has gone through one and a half cycles of study, attends classes at Young Israel and Shaare Torah. When he is unable to make either, he listens to prerecorded lectures online.
Parness, who is in the middle of his fourth cycle, similarly splits his time between local classes and digital options.
“I use a shiur (lecture) from YUTorahOnline by Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz. His knowledge of Torah is all-encompassing,” said Parness. “Otherwise, I’m with Rabbi Silver.”
Balaban and Isenberg studied on their own. That allowed Balaban to “take as much time as I needed, to read the various commentaries and to get what I needed to know,” he said.
Isenberg, a pharmacist whose work routine precluded attendance at a local class, found it easier to rely on his own copy of the Talmud, and open it “at any spare moment I had throughout the day,” he said.
In studying alone, both Balaban and Isenberg relied on Mesorah Publications’ Artscroll edition of the Talmud.
Because of its English translations and elucidations, the Artscroll Talmud is “very accessible,” said Balaban.“It’s really enabled a lot of us to do it.”
Parness previously used both the Artscroll Talmud and the Steinsaltz edition (the latter being a Hebrew translation of the text with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz). “I think that for daf yomi the Steinsaltz is a better approach than the Artscroll because the Steinsaltz is more encompassing. It uses history, archeology, language analysis and word origin,” he said. A recently printed edition, the Koren Talmud Bavli, which offers Steinsaltz’s insights in English, “is fabulous, especially for people who have no yeshiva background.”
Thanks to the Koren Talmud Bavli, podcasts on the day’s learning and dedicated Facebook groups, daf yomi is opening to an even greater audience, said Rabbi Amy Bardack, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of Jewish life and learning. “There’s so many more resources with every new cycle, making it so much more accessible, and what we will see in Pittsburgh is a handful, not a tsunami but a handful, of women and non-Orthodox people who will be at least starting to take on this project.”
As the 14th cycle gets underway, Squirrel Hill resident and Hillel JUC senior Jewish educator Danielle Kranjec plans on utilizing the Koren Talmud Bavli for daily study with her husband.
“We have a sitdown breakfast every morning and we used to read out loud to the kids,” said Kranjec. “We read almost all of the works by Daniel Pinkwater, “The Hobbit,” Italian folk tales. Now we’ll be reading Gemara.”
Kranjec studied Talmud as a graduate student at Jewish Theological Seminary, and has taught both Mishnah and Gemara, but said she and her husband’s limited knowledge of Aramaic (much of the Talmud and rabbinic literature is written in Aramaic) will cause them to rely on English translations, including materials available at sefaria.org, a free “living library of Jewish texts.”
There’s a certain irony to this daf yomi cycle in that it officially began on Jan. 5, making it an almost archetypal New Year’s resolution.
Though Kranjec has been told by fellow Jewish educators that “even spending an hour on the daf” will never yield comprehensive Talmudic understanding, she remains optimistic: “I’ve been encouraging people to start and think about learning in a different mode than what you normally do in Jewish learning, and not trying to understand every intricacy, but just starting and seeing where it takes you.”
For that reason, along with a request from students, Hillel JUC will begin offering a weekly recap of Talmudic texts covered. Titled “This Week in Daf Yomi,” the regular meetup will allow Kranjec and others to rehash particular ideas without the daily commitment of a traditional program.
“I think with the increase of a more pluralistic experience of daf yomi here in Pittsburgh, and sort of across the world, we have an opportunity to bring in really valuable voices to the daf yomi conversation: people’s voices we may not have heard yet around daf yomi,” said Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and youth tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom.
The globalization of daf yomi welcomes new participants, and there are ample ways to support one’s learning, such as through Daf Yomi Pittsburgh, a Facebook group powered by Federation, said Bardack.
With the Jan, 5 start date now behind them, Balaban, Isenberg, Kranjec and Markiz were among multiple Pittsburgh residents already eyeing June 7, 2027, the date of the 14th cycle’s completion.
The secret to making it through is realizing “all you need to do is pick your Gemara up and keep in mind you’re not a quitter,” said Balaban. “Begin to work through it at your level and establish the yomi aspect of it. Every day is what’s important.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.